BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday lauded early progress in a military operation against militants in Baghdad, but said Iraqis had to use this “breathing space” to push ahead with reconciliation.
Rice made an unannounced visit to Baghdad as U.S. and Iraqi troops make early gains in an offensive seen as a final push to end sectarian bloodshed that threatens to tear Iraq apart. “They are off to a good start,” said Rice, referring to Operation Imposing Law. “How the Iraqis use the breathing space that might provide is what is really important,” she told reporters.
While major car bombings and death squad killings in Baghdad have declined, a double car bombing on Saturday at a crowded market in the northern city of Kirkuk killed at least 10 people and wounded 60, police sources said.
The explosions took place in the Rahim Awa district, a predominantly Kurdish area of the ethnically mixed city.
Rice said Iraq’s leaders needed to speed up efforts to reconcile warring groups, finalise an oil revenue sharing law and hold provincial elections.
Rice said she would press those issues during meetings with Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi. “The wait for progress can’t be endless. Those (issues) need to move along more quickly,” said Rice, who last month said the Iraqi government was on “borrowed time”.
Rice arrived in Baghdad a day after the U.S. House of Representatives denounced President George W. Bush’s decision to send more troops to help with the Baghdad sweep operation. The move was a symbolic challenge to Bush’s unpopular war.
The Bush administration faces growing opposition at home over a four-year war that has killed more than 3,100 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
U.S. and Iraqi forces sweeping through Baghdad have encountered little resistance so far.
Shi’ite officials have warned that failure of the operation could mean a collapse of Maliki’s government. Maliki told Bush on Friday that the effort had been a “brilliant success” so far. “The Baghdad security plan is just beginning to unfold and I think it is important to realise it was not ever intended to be a single day, but to ramp up over time,” Rice said.
Violence also ebbed during the early stages of previous, failed campaigns to bring calm to the capital. U.S. military officials have warned the current downturn in bloodshed may only be temporary while insurgents assess the situation.
Rice will later go on to Jerusalem. She is scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas there on Monday.
Police said 11 bodies had been found on the streets of Baghdad on Friday, compared to the usual number of around 40-50 before the offensive began. “Violence and the number of bodies (found) has decreased dramatically since the plan was implemented. This is a positive sign,” said Brigadier Qassim Moussawi, a spokesman for the Iraqi general overseeing the Baghdad plan.
Iraq will re-open its borders with Iran and Syria after they were closed for 72 hours on Wednesday as part of the crackdown, Moussawi added. “The borders will gradually re-open, but it will take 60 days for the border crossings to return to normal,” he said, without saying exactly when they would be reopened.
The U.S. military had said the border checkpoints were to be revamped, partly to improve measures to curb the smuggling of weapons.
U.S. officials accuse Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross its long, porous border into Iraq, and last weekend presented evidence of what they said was Iranian- manufactured weapons being smuggled into Iraq.